Blogs at Amazon

About Chris Schluep

Chris Schluep spent more than a dozen years editing books in New York before moving west. He takes great pride in reading a wide range of books and connecting interested readers with the books they'll love. Chris lives in Seattle with his wife and son, and he feels like he may have one of the best jobs in the world.

Posts by Chris

100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, a List from the Amazon Editors

We've spent the last few months having some very interesting meetings....

When we got the idea to put together a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, we thought "how hard could it be?" Answer: it's extremely difficult to winnow down a lifetime of reading into 100 books.

But after a lot of discussion, pleading, reading, rereading, and sometimes outright arguing, we now have our list. You can see it here.

There's also an opportunity for you to join the conversation over at Goodreads, where readers are adding their own favorites and voting on the list that's accumulating. There's some interesting crossover between the two lists, and many of the popular readers' picks are books that we struggled over while creating our list. More on that at another time.

Here's our Editorial Director, Sara Nelson, talking to the Huffington Post about 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. We know you won't agree with all our picks. It's inevitable. But it's also half the fun.

 

Bernard Cornwell, Author of "The Pagan Lord," Muses on the Path to Christianity

51Ru+zFMMPLEditor's note: Bernard Cornwell's The Pagan Lord is the seventh book in his Saxon Tales series, which started in 2004 with The Last Kingdom. Cornwell recently sent us this essay, in which he examines the spread of Christianity through Europe. It's not the typical Christmas story, but it will be an interesting read for some of our readers.

He was the ‘red ravager’, described as ‘cruel from a child’, a warlord, a rapist, a thief, a murderer and an inveterate enemy of the church.  He is also one of our greatest heroes, so how did King Arthur turn from being a villain into a shining exemplar of Christian chivalry? The answer is syncretism, the merging of religious beliefs. The early saints’ lives of the Celtic church depicted Arthur as a murderous pagan, but unable to eradicate him from popular legend the church simply recruited him so that instead of searching for Bran’s cauldron he pursues the Holy Grail, and instead of being a persecutor of Christians he becomes their champion.

We live in a world of syncretism. The names of January, March, April, May and June all derive from pagan gods, as do the names of our days. We knock on wood, avoid sitting thirteen to dinner, give presents at Christmas and millions believe their destiny is foretold by the stars. Christianity attempted to eradicate such paganism, yet the old heathen names, traditions and beliefs persist like junk DNA in our cultural genome. How on earth did that happen? 

A better question might be why our European ancestors became Christian in the first place. A believer would surely answer that the manifold truth of the religion prevailed over ignorant superstition, but the very persistence of those superstitions suggests that the answer is not quite that simple.  A Roman, before the era of Christianity, would have accepted that there were many gods and seen nothing strange in worshipping one, two or even three hundred of them, but he or she would have found it very odd indeed to be told there was only one god, and that this sole deity was, above all things, jealous.  So how did an intolerant monotheism win out against the tolerant polytheism that had prevailed for so long?

CornwellOne answer is that Christianity proved more profitable. There is a telling story about King Edwin of Northumbria, a powerful pagan who ruled what is now northern England and southern Scotland in the 7th Century. He probably worshipped the Norse gods like Thor and Woden, but at some point he encountered a Christian missionary who suggested that success in war and material prosperity would follow a conversion. Edwin put that to the test and god came through with a battlefield triumph and massive amounts of plunder. The king’s chief pagan priest told Edwin that the old gods had never shown such favor and that Northumbria should therefore convert, which it duly did. The story echoes the experience of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who converted because the Christian god gave him victory over Maxentius. It is a common enough tale. In the early 10th Century a Viking named Hrolf took land in what is now Normandy and the treaty confirming his possession insisted he became a Christian. ‘Paris,’ Henry IV of France declared when he changed from Protestant to Catholic, ‘is worth a mass.’  The Duchy of Normandy (which led to the throne of England) proved well worth a mass too.

The early Christian missionaries targeted such rulers. The17th century Treaty of Westphalia brought peace to war-torn Europe with the famous settlement of cuius regio, eius religio which we might translate as ‘his state, his religion’.  That, of course, decided between Catholic and Protestant, but it applied in early mediaeval Europe too. Convert the king and the king would put pressure on his subjects to conform. Pope Gregory the Great, the 6th Century pontiff, had no qualms about advising Christian magnates to put up their tenants’ rents if they resisted conversion. There is a deal of self-interest here. Christianity managed to persuade ruler after ruler that material wealth and martial victory would be theirs if they changed religion, but plainly the Christian god was not going to give every ruler victory nor spread the wealth evenly, so a second lure was needed; magic. The Christians disdained to call it magic, though if we saw someone hang their cloak on a sunbeam, as Saint Brigid did, we might be forgiven for suspecting trickery. The early church annals are replete with such miracles; the dead are raised, the sick healed, crops saved, and wonders performed, all proving that Christian magic was far more powerful than pagan sorcery. And persecution of rival sorcery went on well into the seventeenth century, as the people of Salem learned to their discomfort.

51PrYqbtDHLYet the church never entirely defeated paganism. They co-opted it when they could by building their churches on the sites of pagan shrines and transmuting pagan celebrations into Christian feasts. Samhain, the Celtic day of the dead when food and drink were put at the door to avert vengeance, was turned into Halloween’s trick or treat.  The Venerable Bede, writing sometime around 700 AD, recorded the spring-time feast celebrating Eostre, a goddess of fertility. Some scholars contend that the name Easter refers to a point of the compass, but Bede, closer than they to the struggle between Christianity and paganism, makes the connection explicit. Easter, Christianity’s most joyous and sacred festival, is named for a pagan goddess, while the giving of Christmas gifts is most likely a holdover from Saturnalia, the Roman midwinter celebration.  So people had to be seduced into the new religion by proof that it was more profitable than the old, and by co-opting the old when it proved too powerful to destroy.

There is a common Christian complaint that crass materialism undermines our spirituality, but perhaps the complainants should remember that such materialism was used to spread the gospel in the first place. And, to ask Yeats’s famous question, what rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born? Look for a beast that offers wonders and, more importantly, material benefits. But whatever comes Wednesday will still remain Woden’s day and Thursday will forever belong to Thor. The pagan gods are with us still.

Bernard Cornwell was born in London and now lives in the United States. In addition to his hugely successful Sharpe novels, he is the author of the Starbuck Chronicles, the Warlord trilogy, the Grail Quest series, the Alfred series, and the Saxon Tales series.  His newest novel is The Pagan Lord (Harper, January 7, 2014).

Oprah's Book Club 2.0: "The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd

The_Invention_of_Wings3Oprah Winfrey has announced her next pick in Oprah's Book Club 2.0!

The book is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, the celebrated author of The Secret Life of Bees.

Set in the early 19th century, The Invention of Wings revolves around two women: Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a slave girl living in Charleston, and the Grimke's young daughter, Sarah. The book begins on Sarah's eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. 

Based on the real life Grimke sisters, who defied great odds to help launch the abolition movement in the United States, this is a marvelous novel. The story spans thirty five years, as the lives of Handful and Sarah become intertwined in a complex dance of two women striving for lives of their own, shaping each other's destinies, marked by guilt, estrangement, and the search for authenticity in defiance of social norms.

Here's Oprah herself on The Invention of Wings:

 


Sara Says: Oprah's New Book Club Pick is Same Old Song, Only Better

 

It's All Good: A Look at the Goodreads Choice Awards

Every year the good people at Goodreads ask their readers to vote in a variety of categories--culminating in early December with the announcement of the Goodreads Choice Awards winners--and every year the program seems to get bigger and bigger. During the season when anyone with any book authority (including the Amazon Editors) comes out with a Best-of list, the Choice Awards truly represent the people's choice.

Here's a look at some of the winners.

  • BrownKhaled Hosseini's wonderful And The Mountains Echoed was the top pick in fiction. For the record, the Amazon Editors ranked it at #2 in our Best Books of 2013.
  • Dan Brown's Inferno was one of the top sellers of the year at Amazon, so it's no surprise that it landed at #1 in Mystery & Thrillers.
  • The Choice Awards winner in Historical Fiction was another favorite of the Amazon Editors. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life was our top pick for Best Books of the Year So Far (which came out in June). It's nice to see that the people agree.

You can see all the Goodreads Choice Awards winners here.

Let us know your favorite read of the year.

 

Best Books of 2013: Business & Investing

BOTY13_B&IA lot of fine business books were published this year. Big Data helped to popularize one of the catchiest business terms of the year. Who Owns the Future? stirred our thoughts on the relationship between technology and culture. But one book really took the prize.

Before that, some other highlights:

Even two famous basketball coaches got into the game:

Sandberg._V374013687_But the 500 pound gorilla of the year in business books was Lean In, in which Sheryl Sandberg urges women to stop apologizing for their success, while encouraging women (and men) to re-examine their business and home relationships. Not only was it one of the top business books of the year, it was one of the top books of the year. Maybe it's more like an 800 pound gorilla.

For more on Lean In, see Sara Nelson's Some Things You Might Not Know About Sheryl Sandberg.

For more on the Best Books of 2013, go here.

 

Nelson Mandela Dead at 95

MandelaNelson Mandela, one of the most iconic figures of our time, has died. He was 95 years old.

Mandela had not appeared publicly since 2010 when he attended the World Cup final in Johannesburg, the first held on the African continent. He remained a paragon of dignity and humanism, even as he quietly spent his final years in his childhood home in the nation's Eastern Cape Province. 

Born on July 18, 1918, Mandela was eventually expelled from University College of Fort Hare for protesting apartheid, the system that he would ultimately see overthrown. He helped to form the youth league of the National African Congress, pushing for that body to take more radical steps against the white minority South African government. In 1956, he was charged with high treason; following a five-year trial, he was acquited. The ANC's tactics grew more militant over time, a process that he encouraged, and in 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison.

At the trial, he made this statement: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

He would spend 27 years in incarceration before finally being set free.

On February 11th, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison to shouts and applause, his fist raised above his head. He was elected President of South Africa in 1994, promising to serve only one term, which he completed in 1999. Mandela's politics stressed forgiveness over vengeance, and as president he famously established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu was appointed chair to the Commission, which granted individual amnesty in exchange for testimony about apartheid-era crimes.

After retiring from politics, he continued to work on the global stage, championing human rights and world peace, and taking up the fight against AIDS.

His death was announced by South African President Jacob Zuma on late Thursday, who said of him, "What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."

 

Daniel Menaker on The New Yorker, on Writers, the Drive to Succeed, and More

PhotomenWhen it comes to literary careers, Daniel Menaker's reads like a dream-come-true. After 26 years at The New Yorker, where he was a fiction editor (and where his own stories were published), he went on to work as an editor at Random House and Harper Collins, eventually landing as Editor-in-Chief at Random House. His new book My Mistake is a fascinating  in-depth recollection of his experiences, filled with charm, genuine insight, and some titillating detail.

I recently talked to Menaker about his book. To read the names in the interview alone--Gina Centrello (publisher and president of Random House), Ann Godoff (former publisher of Random House, current head of the Penguin Press), Alice Munro (just won the Nobel Prize), William Maxwell and William Shawn (titans at The New Yorker), John Cheever, Tina Brown, etc., etc.--is to realize the scope of his experience. And yet, reading his book it became clear that he generally considered himself both insider and outsider.

We talked about that, and a lot more. Click the link below to listen to the interview. His is a life well-lived.

 

DanMenakerInterviewMP32

 

 Photo credit: Katherine Bouton

 

MyMistake

Amazon Asks David Baldacci, Author of "King and Maxwell"

With the release of his latest novel King and Maxwell, we caught up to David Baldacci to give him the Amazon Asks treatment.

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Describe your book in 10 words or less?  

My sleuths help a son whose dead father isn’t dead.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

W is for Wasted; Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power; The Reluctant Tuscan; The Hamlet. I multi-read!

Favorite books of all time? 

Sophie’s Choice, The Cider House Rules, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Tale of Two Cities

Book that made you want to become a writer? 

Eudora Welty’s and Raymond Carver’s short stories.

Most memorable author moment? 

Being mistaken for John Grisham. What an ego stroke that was.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?  

Seeing the future. At least then I can see my mistakes coming.

What are you obsessed with now? Baldacci-David-credit-Alexander-James-for-KING-AND-MAXWELL

Fantasy stories.

What are you stressed about now? 

Holidays coming.

What are you psyched about now?

Holidays coming.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My kids. I know, awwww.

Pen Envy - Book you wish you'd written?

A Tale of Two Cities

What's next for you?

An eBook-only short story titled “Bullseye” in February. The YA fantasy, The Finisher, in March and a new Will Robie thriller, titled The Target, in April. I’m also working on a new thriller for the fall of 2014. Other than that, I’ve got nothing going on.

What's the last dream you remember?

I’m on a stage holding a statuette and thanking some sort of Academy for their vote. Not really sure what that was about.

Favorite line?

A legal one. The slippery slope is indeed slippery. In that one phrase is about as much wisdom as you can pack into six words.

Favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?  

Procrastination: Boating, walking while daydreaming, kayaking. Temptation: Going out to eat. Vice: A bottle of Amarone wine followed by another and so on and so on….

What do you collect? 

First edition novels and custom pens.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

Many that begin with, “Thank you, Mr. Baldacci, your books have gotten me to be a reader again.”

 

See all of David Baldacci's books.

Introducing the Amazon Editors' Best Books of the Year

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Each month the Amazon book editors hold a number of meetings, both official and ad hoc, to discuss the best books we've read, culminating in our Best Books of the Month selections. Those lists lead us to this time of year, in which we take a look at our favorites-- including upcoming books through the end of December, and the few that might have slipped through the cracks the first go around. And after a lot more discussion (sometimes heated), and rounds of votes, we arrive at our Best Books of the Year.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is our pick as the Best Book of 2013. In some ways, that came as no surprise to us (although it did come as a result of a healthy and prolonged discussion). Our intrepid, extremely well-read director, Sara Nelson, jumped on The Goldfinch early on, singing its praises to anyone who would listen. And she started months before the book was even published. The Goldfinch has just debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, but it lands at #1 for us. To echo what some are already saying, it's the kind of novel that only comes around every decade or so: arguably Dickensian in its treatment of Theo, a 14-year-old boy who loses his mother, steals a painting, and sets off on a journey populated by a rich cast of memorable characters.

Our number two pick is Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed, a book as well-written and deeply moving as his first two novels (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns), proving perhaps that lightninig can strike thrice.

The number three book on the Best Books of the Year list is David Finkel's phenomenal Thank You for Your Service, a nonfiction account of the hopes and pain that soldiers carry back with them from war. It's not an easy read, because the subject isn't an easy one, but I could argue that it's the most important book on this list. The writing is exquisite, the compassion disarming.

The fourth book on the list was our #1 book when we announced our Best Books of the Year So Far back in June. Chances are you're already familiar with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, a brilliant, multi-layered novel in which her protagonist moves through multiple lives, each one an iteration on the last, flirting with the balance between choice and fate. It deserves all the accolades it has received.

Finally, one of the ones that got away the first time. Sort of, at least. Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier was a category selection in our Best Books of July, but it didn't make our main Best of the Month list. Chalk up its high place on the Best of the Year list to a classic word-of-mouth story. It was only later that this nonfiction saga of Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale, his wife Country Rose, and their 15 children living in the depths of Alaska started getting passed around among the Amazon editors. (A few read it back in July, but not all.) This compelling story, filled with dark secrets and surprising disclosures, eventually consumed us so much that we felt we had to give it a high ranking on the Best Books of the Year. We believe readers will not be disappointed.

Of course there are lots of other great books in the top 100, and in our dozens of Best Books of the Year categories. We've put so much into this year of reading and discussing, and sometimes arguing, that it's a thrill to finally be able to share the Best Books of 2013 with you. There's something for everyone here, so enjoy!

Talking with Donald Driver, Author of "Driven"

51nwBsnc4JLMaybe you saw him win the Super Bowl.

Maybe you saw him win the Mirror Ball.

And whether you're a football fan or a fan of Dancing With the Stars (or like me, a fan of both--yes I'll admit it), there's a very good chance you know who Donald Driver is. He's got a killer smile and killing moves, and he kind of seems perfect in a way. But he's not. He's made mistakes, and he deals with them with disarming honesty in his autobiography Driven. It's all there--the highs and lows, and the lessons he's learned along the way.

Recently, I got the chance to ask him about his book and his life.

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Chris Schluep: You are very honest about your rough childhood. Was it difficult to open up about the crime and poverty that pervaded your youth?

Donald Driver: I have always viewed sharing my story as an opportunity—an opportunity to show kids who are going through some of the same things I went through that there is a better way. I want kids to know that no matter where they’re from or what they are going through, nothing is impossible. All you need is a dream and the determination to achieve it, no matter what obstacles are in your way.

CS: As a reader, one of my major takeaways from Driven was that it's okay to make mistakes. Was this an important message for you to get across to people?

DD: Yes! It’s okay to make mistakes, but you have to own them and learn from them so you don’t make them again in the future.

CS: You were a low draft pick coming out of college—making the Packers wasn't a shoo-in. How did you motivate yourself to succeed?

DD: I saw where I came from and knew I didn’t want to go back to living that life. I remember lying in bed with my brother when we were kids (we had to share a bed) and telling him, “I’m going to get us out of this. I’m going to make it.” I didn’t want my family to struggle and I was going to do anything and everything to make the team and ensure they wouldn’t have to anymore.

CS: When you came to Green Bay, you weren't even sure where it was on a map. But when you retired from football, you were given the key to the city. How did Green Bay change you?

DD: It expanded my family by a few million people! The way Packers fans embraced me from day one, and the love they showed me throughout my entire fourteen-year career, it truly does feel like they are part of my family. The fans mean the world to me and I cannot thank them enough for their support.

CS: You had the benefit of playing with greats like Brett Favre, which taught you a lot. As your career progressed, was it important for you to provide similar mentoring to younger players on the team?

DD: It was important because showing those young guys the ropes not only helps them make your football team better on the field, it also helps them learn the right things to do and say off of it. I was fortunate to have a few vets looking after me, it’s one of those things you just try to pay forward when it’s your turn.

CS: You got down to 2 percent body fat to perform on Dancing with the Stars. Was winning the Mirror Ball as difficult as winning the Super Bowl? Is that even a fair comparison?

DD: I think it’s a fair comparison because they were both incredibly tough to accomplish. There would be days where my partner, Peta, and I would practice for ten or twelve hours. But winning the Super Bowl took me twelve years to accomplish, so I think I have to give that the edge.

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